Transistor fails to be the unqualifed success that Supergiant's previous game was, but succeeds nonetheless.
Transistor can't escape comparisons to Bastion. How could it? With their first game, Supergiant Games delivered something that would put most veteran game-studios to shame. A near-perfect blending of storytelling and gameplay with presentation values that became iconic on their own right. For better or for worse, Transistor looks and sounds like the successor to Bastion. However, individual aspects of Supergiant's classic debut and their latest game are comparable, but Transistor feels like it comes from a different place. Few games are more highly specific in their tone as Bastion, and Transistor is one of them. Supergiant's foray in science-fiction is a heady journey that infuriates as much as it intrigues, backed-up by one of the most enjoyable RPG combat-systems I've ever encountered. It's not the unqualified success that Bastion was, but it has more than enough great elements to work on its own level.
Though you play as Red, a successful singer in her own right, the real star of Transistor is Cloudbank. Transistor's setting is nothing if not striking. Bastion's look was charmingly hap-hazard, full of hand-drawn flourishes and busy detail. Cloudbank is slick and elegant, combining Renaissance architecture with a sleek vision of the future. Deus Ex: Human Revolution had similar influences, but Transistor's use of lighting and colour set it apart. It's utterly gorgeous in every single pre-rendered detail. A close-second is the music. Darren Korb's previous work with Supergiant was already impressive, yet Transistor's sounds manage to one-up it. The mix of synths, vocals, electronic beats and jazz complete what is arguably one of the most confident presentations of a game world in years.
The strength of the presentation also plays into how Transistor tells it story, yet this is not always a good thing. From its cold cold open to the halfway point, the heady mix of the visuals, music and oblique storytelling is fascinating. However, Transistor goes out of its way to distance you from the relationship at its heart. The game begins with Red pulling the Transistor, a large sword-like weapon, out of the body of a man whose consciousness has been transferred into the weapon that killed him. Immediately there is the suggestion of an established relationship between the two, the dynamic of which you as the player aren't privy to. At first this piques one's curiousity, and as details drip little by little it's almost intoxicating as you anticipate eventually be able to literate enough in this relationship to understand who these people were before it all went wrong. The problem is that it isn't until the very end that we're given a reason to care. Though there's something to be said about an ending re-contextualising the events of a story to give a whole new meaning, it should only come about without me feeling that basic information is being cryptically withheld from me in order to make the ending work at all.
Other key elements of the story are buried either in text or left up to interpretation. This is not a bad thing. I appreciate when games respect my intelligence to the point where they are willing to leave aspects of the story up to inference (thatgamecompany's Journey being a prime example) but in Transistor's case all too much is viewed through a haze of cryptic exposition and imagery. It may work for some, but for myself I was constantly questioning the motivations of the antagonists, the nature of the Transistor and why certain events were even happening. Bastion similarly left much up to interpretation and inference, but it was ultimately to allow you to fill in the blanks of the world rather than the particulars of the narrative necessary to forge an emotional connection.
Transistor draws its most unfavourable comparisons however to its predecessor in its use of Logan Cunningham, the iconic voice of Bastion's narrator, who plays the titular Transistor. It's an important distinction to make that the Transistor is an active participant in the story rather than a narrator, but as he's one of the few voices you'll ever hear in the game, the difference is largely academic. In practice, there are times where Transistor steps into the potholes that Bastion deftly avoided. Often the Transistor is actively commenting on events taking place in combat as they occur. Similarly, the Transistor may even comment on text you are reading, which occasionally adds an another layer to the content but often feels inelegant and forced in a way that Bastion's narration never did. The performance is still impeccable, but it often seems as though the pairing of a girl whose voice was stolen with a talking sword is slightly contrived and overbearing.
It's disheartening because of the meticulous way Supergiant builds the world of Cloudbank into an abstract yet fully-realised city. Little asides from the Transistor about spaces and places make Cloudbank feel like a place alive with people. Details like how many people admired the view from a lookout, the number of marriage proposals made on a boardwalk and so forth are sprinkled everywhere. The world also has an acute obsession with computers. Everything in the game is a multiple of two. Your abilities are written like things you would write in a linux command line. Every news terminal will ask for your vote in a poll or a comment on its new story, subtly implying Supergiant's views on how technology and data aggregation have reduced us all to statistics despite our distinct talents and traits. Themes ranging from gentrification, class-warfare, the common good and fickleness of the masses are quietly explored through text-logs integrated seamlessly into the way you switch out multiple abilities. A single character is connected to every ability in the game, meaning that you must use it as an active, secondary and passive ability to get the full story. It's a neat and elegant way to incentivise trying all the abilities, a trademark ability of Supergiant's to integrate storytelling and gameplay.
And what gameplay it turns out to be. Transistor on its face appears to be a slightly more tactical Bastion, yet the differences run deeper below the skin. Supergiant showed a remarkable ability with Bastion to distil the essential elements of action-RPGs like Diablo down to their most base degree then add depth and nuances to the systems where appropriate. Transistor does the same thing to the constructs of the Japanese turn-based RPG. Combining real-time movement with a mark-and-execute system ala Splinter Cell Conviction known as Turn(), you can plot out a series of moves to be executed in quick succession. It combines the very best elements of real-time and turn-based strategy into a single system allowing both freedom of movement and quick-positioning while giving you all of the time you need to execute a devastating sequence of moves. It's satisfying on every level and retains its appeal long after you've finished the game.
The real depth however comes from the various abilities or "Functions" that you accrue over the course of the game. There are 16 functions in total that are unlocked as you level-up and each can be equipped in a primary slot, a secondary slot or a passive slot. This means that an function can be an ability in and of itself, a modifier on another ability or a passive buff to Red's survivability. It allows for a staggering number of combinations that, if you engage in the challenge rooms that expose you to the range of possibilities, will open up to what seems to be hundreds of differing play-styles. At some point you may feel like you've found the combination of functions that creates the path of least resistance only to activate one of the Limiters (Transistor's twist on Bastion's optional difficulty modifiers that boost your experience gain) and find that a completely different strategy.
If there is an issue with the gameplay, it's the the level-design is rather uninspired. Large destructible blocks of white emerge in combat arenas signalling a fight and create artificial barriers and cover, and all the while you're locked-in to a specific arena. Though I applaud any attempt to avoid the equivalent of waist-high cover littered about the environment in a third-person shooter, it's hard not to view this as a contrived solution. This being said, once you get into the rhythm of the combat, it's difficult to care. Transistor's take on turn-based strategy is by far the reason to play through it, and the smart inclusion of the Recursion() (New Game +) mode which mixes up the enemy encounters and level-layouts gives you ample reason to play through again with your full complement of abilities that you've accrued.
Games live or die by their interactivity and Transistor's gameplay puts its so high above so many games that it's a shame that has to be the follow-up to an achievement like Bastion. These days games often get points for trying, and though I won't say the same of Transistor, I will say that means and methods used to tell its story don't lend themselves well to such a condensed experience. There is so much to Transistor's narrative ambition that if feels like it can barely contain it all within a single game, yet the decision to obfuscate the point wherever possible left me constantly feeling that there was meaning just slightly out of reach. Then again, such a specific vision may well resonate with you. Does it one-up Supergiant's previous work? Arguably not. Does it succeed at what it tries to achieve? Absolutely. Experiencing Transistor is something I'd recommend to everyone, but whether its singular brand of diffused storytelling and world-building works for you is something I can't begin to guess.